Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Between alarms: Unmanaged stress can be paralyzing

By Arjuna George   

Features Arjuna George

Over the past year, I have been on a bit of a self-health journey with a concentration on my resiliency and stress management. This open and transparent column is meant to provide you with some comfort knowing that we all have stress in our lives and it is compounded in the fire service. No one reading this will say to themselves “I don’t have stress”. We all have stress whether it be at work, at home, in life, or especially at an emergency event. If you don’t recognize it or feel it, you simply have not met your limit yet.

Stress plays a key role in our daily lives and can push us to excel and be our best selves. Stress gives us the strength to persevere through challenging times and be alert and ready for action. However, unmanaged or unrecognized stress can be paralyzing. When you are under stress, the hormone cortisol shoots through your body and gives your muscles the added horsepower they need to flee the threat or attack the fire. If you are without tactics and strategies to release the cortisol, your system is on constant overdrive and headed for health and performance issues. Finding methods to release and reduce bad chronic stress is paramount to a happy healthy life.

Our “always on” life with the constant notifications, instant communications, and extreme pressure we place on ourselves provides anything but a calm state. As much as we can appreciate the postives of technology, we must also recognize the negative impact it can have on our health.

As I write this, it falls on the one-year anniversary of my awakening. I realized that the speed I was travelling and the pressure I put on myself was not sustainable. I have spent the last year refocusing on me and finding methods and systems to be more resilient to stress. I have dedicated the past year to better self-care of the mind and body.


Some self-improvements I have found great results in have been having a well hydrated body, how important good quality sleep is for proper recharging, the value of breathing and mindfulness, striving for a healthier nutritious lifestyle with less sugar and processed foods, how critical guilt free away-time is for me and my family and how time management is key to stress reduction.

One of the greatest strategies I have incorporated into my life has been monthly away time with my wife or family. Every month, with no excuses, we escape our busy lives to refuel the tank. This new ritual has reduced stress and provides something to look forward to every month. I highly recommend you give this a try. Being resilient to stress will allow you to be more present at home and at work. Taking time to recharge allows you to come back with vigor.

Stress is one of the biggest contributing factors to an unhealthy body and mind. Stress can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even heart disease. Think of your brain like a bank, where we take daily withdrawals in the form of life stresses — break-ups, job changes, traumatic events, health issues, etc. Without regular deposits of self-care, sleeping, meditation, nutrition and relaxation in your healthy mind bank, you will be withdrawing more then you deposit. The goal should to be to never withdraw more then you deposit.

I am often asked how I get so much done, the volume of work and the variety often interests people, but it comes with a cost. The cost is stress overload.

A new strategy I am undertaking to improve my time management is to do less. Sounds shocking but it is working. I have begun to block periods of time in my calendar to think, review and plan. I also have adjusted my calendar time slots to reduce the meeting to meeting hamster wheel. The continuous circuit of meetings gives you no time to collect your thoughts or act on the results from the last meeting. This simple tweak to my workflow has lowered my daily stress substantiality.

I used to work all day and all night. My volume of work was impressive but once again not sustainable. I have an office open-door mindset, but I have also learned that the office door is sometimes best closed. This is not to avoid issues or my people but to take a moment to breathe and refocus on a task. I have read that for every interruption at work it can take another 25 minutes to regain focus.

The journey is still a work in progress, but I feel like I have the freedom to be a better me, to give more, to think more, and to excel even more. This past year has been a gift that I want to share and continue to unravel.

The theme “Between alarms” has a whole new meaning to me where the times between alarms is to tune yourself up, take care of your body and mind, refocus, relax and even turn off. You will find that when the alarm does sound, you will be responding as your best self. Now go and make a healthy mind bank deposit.

Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in B.C. He has served on the department since 1997. Contact Arjuna at

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